Authored by Geoffrey Westbrook
After more than four years of litigation, Citibank hauled in a significant victory last week against putative class and collective actions in Ruiz v. Citibank. Personal bankers from California, New York, Washington D.C. and other states alleged that Citibank withheld overtime pay under a nationwide scheme encouraging off-the-clock work. Although finding “systematic violations at the branch level,” a New York federal district court held that the plaintiffs failed to produce sufficient evidence to connect those violations to an uniform, overarching company practice. The court denied the plaintiffs’ bid for class certification of state law claims and decertified a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Ruiz is part of a growing trend among trial courts emphasizing the need for evidence of an unlawful company policy in nationwide class and collective actions. Modern class actions must satisfy the “rigorous” Rule 23 certification standard articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes. Collective actions, however, are assessed under the FLSA’s “similarly situated” test. As explained below, the court in Ruiz blurred the lines between these two distinct standards, requiring evidence of an illegal company policy or uniform nationwide managerial conduct supporting the plaintiffs’ claims in both types of actions. Without such evidence, even with nationwide violations at the local level, under Ruiz both must fail.
Digna Ruiz, a New York resident, filed a complaint seeking to represent a nationwide collective action under the FLSA and a class action under state labor law. He alleged that Citibank failed to compensate its personal bankers for overtime hours by setting high production targets and strictly limiting overtime work. A month later, residents of Washington, D.C., Illinois, Virginia and California filed nearly identical collective and class actions under the FLSA and laws of their respective states. These matters were consolidated in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
After limited discovery, the court granted conditional certification of the FLSA collective action. More than 400 personal bankers opted in, and discovery proceeded in anticipation of the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification and Citibank’s motion to decertify the collective action.
Denial of State Law Class Certification Based on Rule 23 and Dukes
Class certification was denied based almost entirely on the “commonality” requirement of Rule 23. To certify a nationwide class, among other requirements, there must be some evidence of a common policy or management practice that is subject to testing at the class-wide level. The court likened the case to Dukes, where written corporate policies were lawful and managers were lawfully given significant discretion over pay and promotions. In the absence of an illegal policy, Dukes requires evidence showing an unlawful corporate practice connecting Citibank’s more than 900 branch offices across the country. Evidence of a local or even regional policy will not likely be sufficient to certify a nationwide class.
The plaintiffs failed to show Citibank’s lawful policies uniformly translated themselves into unlawful managerial behavior across the country. Anecdotal evidence demonstrated conflicting experiences among bankers nationwide in which some personal bankers felt pressured to work off the clock, while others had no issue meeting performance goals. There was significant evidence that certain managers pressured bankers not to report overtime hours, but at those and other branches many were properly paid overtime, indicating at best an inconsistent practice. Knowledge of overtime violations rarely percolated above the district level, and when it did, immediate efforts were made by area management to rectify the violations. Thus, the plaintiffs could not establish a common management approach — on a nationwide basis — in exercising their considerable discretion and resulting in unpaid overtime through Citibank branches as a whole. Evidence of even systematic violations at the branch level (and in some cases reaching up to senior management) was not sufficient to certify a nationwide class.
Decertification of FLSA Collective Action
In decertifying the FLSA collective action, the court followed a rising trend analogizing the “commonality” requirement of Rule 23 to the “similarly situated” test for collective action ultimate certification. In this vein, the Ruiz court granted Citibank’s decertification motion. It relied on the same evidence underlying its class action certification denial, holding that “Plaintiffs have advanced the ball very little in demonstrating a common plan or scheme.” Secondhand statements regarding an alleged companywide policy to force unpaid overtime by branch managers, in the face of Citibank’s lawful overtime and performance policies, was not sufficient to show personal bankers across the country were “similarly situated.” All told, evidence of individual overtime violations at the district level will not alone carry the day for purposes of class and collective action certification.
Ruiz represents a growing movement of the courts seeking to bridge the analytical differences between class and collective actions. The result of this trend is a greater uniformity in wage and hour decisions based on parallel theories. Logically, a putative class of plaintiffs failing to meet Rule 23 “commonality” requirements should not be permitted to proceed with a collective action either. We will continue to track district courts throughout the country in hopes that this common sense line of cases increases in popularity.